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FDR and the Great Depression

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. He immediately embarked on an ambitious plan to get the country out of the Great Depression.


  • Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the nation through the Great Depression.
  • His signature domestic legislation, the New Deal, expanded the role of the federal government in the nation’s economy in an effort to address the challenges of the Great Depression.
  • He was elected to the presidency four times, serving from March 1933 until his death in office in April 1945.

Roosevelt's life and long career

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fifth cousin of former President Teddy Roosevelt, was raised amid privilege in Hyde Park, New York. He attended Harvard University, was elected to the New York State Senate in 1910, and served as assistant secretary of the Navy during the First World War. From 1929 to 1932 he served as governor of New York.1
Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Known as FDR, Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. He served as the nation’s 32nd president from March 4, 1933 to his death in 1945.
At age thirty-nine, Roosevelt contracted polio. He lost the use of his legs for the rest of his life, though the public was largely unaware of his disability. (In private, he moved around by wheelchair. In public, supported by steel leg braces and assistants, he could walk short distances.) His life experiences forged a man whose easygoing manner belied an interior toughness.2

Roosevelt and the New Deal

In his 1932 run for the presidency, Roosevelt asserted that he would help “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” and pledged himself to “a new deal for the American people.” In his First Inaugural Address, saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he sought to reassure the public amid the anxieties of the Great Depression.3
As president he championed the series of federal legislative initiatives known as the New Deal. The New Deal was not a blueprint for action, but was instead animated by a spirit, as Roosevelt said, of “bold, persistent experimentation,” in which he would “take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”4
On March 12, 1933, Roosevelt delivered the first of his live-radio “fireside chats.” In the first chat he spoke about the banking crisis and explained the actions he and Congress had taken to address it. During his presidency he delivered thirty “fireside chats,” explaining to the public in reassuring tones and plain-spoken language his New Deal policies and the Second World War through the medium of radio.5
Roosevelt delivering one of his fireside chats, September 1936. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In an ill-fated move in 1937, President Roosevelt sought to pack the US Supreme Court, which had ruled against many of his programs, with justices who would be more favorable to the New Deal. His “court packing” plan called for adding an additional justice to the Court for every justice over the age of 70. The measure was widely denounced by the public and failed in Congress.6
Although the New Deal did not ultimately succeed in lifting the United States out of the Great Depression, the United States' mobilization for World War II revived the economy during the late 1930s and 1940s.

What do you think?

Do you think Roosevelt's experience with polio changed his personality and politics? If so, how?
How would you characterize Roosevelt's approach to the Great Depression?
Why do you think the "fireside chats" were so effective as a tool for spreading public awareness of Roosevelt's policies?
Why did Roosevelt attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court? How might American politics be different if he had succeeded?

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